Monta Ellis on the island of misfit toys

Without passing judgment as to what degree he helps his team wins, let’s agree that Monta Ellis is a special player. Even from a historical standpoint, Monta matters. Of the 10 guards not named Kobe who’ve entered the league straight out of high school, he is easily the most successful.

It takes about .3 seconds to notice Monta Ellis is on the court. His speed and control in top gear pull pupils like a $300,000 sports car weaving in and out of lumbering SUVs on a 6 lane superhighway. But for all Ellis does to stand out, no one seems sure of where he fits in.

Advanced statistics open (and shut) a debate about one-way players like Ellis, who has the distinction of being one of the very worst defenders on one of the very worst defenses in the NBA. He’s an electric, prolific scorer with mediocre efficiency. As a result, his team’s offense plays fast, but doesn’t score faster than enough teams to be successful. He’s a casual fan favorite who’s status doesn’t always stand up to rigorous examination.

Monta also has the bad fortune of being paired with Stephen Curry, who, aside from a nasty turnover habit, plays the game with uncommonly precise efficiency. His grace and effortlessness douses the fitful bottle rocket bursts that make Monta so alluring.

Like Ellis, Curry struggles defensively, creating a “one must go” situation in the East Bay. The issue is compounded by the fact that Curry, who may be the next Steve Nash, doesn’t play as well when he shares the court with his high scoring accomplice. So Monta must go.

And yet, all that talent.

It’s impossible to imagine there isn’t a team for which Monta makes a winning impact, a home where someone is around the sweep up the occasional broken dish.

If Monta is a problem child, Arron Afflalo is a role-stuffing golden boy. After spending 4 years at UCLA and grinding his game into Pac-10 MOP form, Afflalo has quietly made the Nuggets a more stable and successful team. A willing and versatile defender, efficient shotmaker and vocal teammate, Afflalo is an obvious foil to Ellis.

I asked that discerning source of deeply contemplated opinion, Twitter, if a successful team would rather add Ellis or Afflalo to its roster. The two play the same position and are the same age. Ellis has been in the top 10 in scoring for the last two  seasons while Afflalo first averaged double digit points last year.

But basketball requires the integration of talent into a five man flow, and Ellis is almost Iversonian in his demand that the other four fashion themselves to his individualism.

It seems that like Iverson, success is possible for Ellis in the right scenario–one in which Ellis is backed by big active defenders and flanked by a backcourt mate with defensive versatility. Ellis would also be well-served by pairing with a big man who occupies attention in the post. He is devastating with any sort of space, and a defender rotating his way is more likely to shatter a heel trying to change directions than stay in front of Ellis at full burst. Spread the floor and watch him go.

The Spurs are a somewhat inviting option, should the franchise decide to change out Parker for a younger model. The Bulls could hypothetically gain from another shot creator, but if replication of offensive skills is problematic for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, it would be worse for Ellis and Derrick Rose. Ellis on the Bulls would also demand Rose guard shooting guards each night, exposing him to trailing Ray Allen around on one end and breaking down whole defenses on the other.

If there’s one team on which Monta makes solid sense, it’s the Orlando Magic. Ellis is an early offense specialist and, unlike most guards that possess his size and game, he thrives on the weakside. Ellis would add an element of danger on the off the ball that none of the Magic’s current wings possess—ever a threat to gut the defense with a slashing drive.

Stan Van Gundy has experience hiding even flakier defenders. With D12 wiping away mistakes and… but wait, who guards the two guards? These big point guards don’t grow on trees and you can’t move Nelson to give Ellis the keys to that offense. Ugh.

OK, what about the Knicks?

Billups isn’t totally miscast defensively against twos, and looking down the line, 6-6 rookie Iman Shumpert will likely be as versatile a defender as any point guard in the league. If anyone could make Ellis, Anthony and Staudemire work, possibly be introducing a rule change to allow for multiple basketballs, it might be D’Antoni. Or Adleman…

Adleman!

How about Ellis in Minnesota alongside the rangy, reluctant-to-shoot Rubio?  That could work! Ellis and Derrick Williams slashing from the wings, Love’s inside out game… I can see it now. Assuming the T-Wolves didn’t have to give up anything on the order of Love or Williams to score Ellis in the first place.

If it looks bleak, one thing remains in Monta’s favor: team chemistry is fickle and can appear without warning. The Mavericks are just the latest iteration of winning teams finding ways to use unconventional players. Ellis’s problem is that he plays a conventional role—the score-first scoring scorer, without the body or willingness to contribute much of anything else. Everyone else has to be tailored to his specifications. The Mavericks carried a number of players with that same requirement and masterfully combined them in such a way that each player supported the others.

There are scenarios in which Monta can be more than a poster boy for overvaluing points per game. There is an island for misfit wonders like him. One wonders if Ellis glimpsed it for the first and last time while serving under Captain Jack on the Warriors’ wild, glorious run in 2007.


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